NEW YORK TIMES February 10, 2002
Century 21, Closed by Terror, Reopens Soon

TO thousands of New Yorkers and their hard-shopping kin in places as far flung as Glagsow and Tokyo, Century 21, the discount department store near the World Trade Center, was retailing's holy of holies.

Some still wax effusive about the store, at 22 Cortlandt Street, calling it a shrine, a temple of style and a mecca. Their descriptions attest to a cultish devotion that it inspires even now, some five months after the attacks of Sept. 11 forced it to close.

Those who miss the pleasure of passing through the building each day include Peter McGrane, who worked nearby at 1 Liberty Plaza. "Every day, I would exit the 4/5 Fulton Street stop and walk through your store," he wrote to the store's owners. "I shopped in that store so much and truly consider it as much an icon of the area as the towers themselves."

Kim France, a magazine editor, viewed the store, a four-building complex, as unique. "Once you had been there, there was never any going back to conventional shopping," she lamented. "It was the gold standard of stores like that."

The eulogy is premature. Today Century 21 stands intact, cleared of dust and other debris that blanketed it until recently, and ready to open later this month. While the owners declined to name an official opening date, citing concerns that construction might cause delays, the store's tawny wood-paneled walls and marble floors have been polished and sandblasted to a sheen, its fabled third floor of European designer fashions refurbished and already stocked with pristine merchandise, most of it fresh off the spring 2002 runways — all of it, as they say in the trade, priced to sell.

Among those who will be invited to the ribbon- cutting ceremony are President Bush and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg has declared that no matter the date, he will be on hand. Like many other city officials, the mayor welcomes the resurrection of the store as a measure of the financial district's ability to get back on its feet.

"In view of the devastation to our retailers generally, Century 21 really is a lifeline," said Carl Weisbrod, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. "Reopening the store has a very important symbolic role in Lower Manhattan. It represents the beginning of a return to normality."

It is also a giant leap of faith. On most weekdays, there are tens of thousands fewer people in Lower Manhattan than there were before Sept. 11. It's the kind of traffic that Raymond Gindi, an owner of the Century 21 company, a 41-year-old Brooklyn-based private family business, knows he is not likely to see again. All the same, relocating the store was "never a serious thought," he said. "Our more serious thoughts are about the future. We just don't know what to expect."

Mr. Gindi's concerns are well founded. There are signs of rebirth in the financial district, notably the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which opened in Battery Park City on Jan. 28. But local merchants are not taking the future for granted. "In our own informal survey of area retailers, the consensus was that sales are down about 30 percent," Mr. Gindi said. "If that is the case, for us it's going to be hard to meet our expenses and stay open. But we took the position that we have to open."

Century 21 has branches in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and in Westbury on Long Island, and it plans a third store, in Morristown, N.J. But for reasons personal and financial, its biggest hopes remain invested in the Manhattan store.

"Staying put was a question of loyalty," Mr. Gindi said. "We felt that to move would have been to abandon downtown, that it would be wrong not to give this store a go." Besides, the family still owns and occupies much of the real estate that houses the retail complex.

The store's buildings are intact and structurally sound, requiring little more than new fixtures, a paint job and completion of a large-scale cleanup to be born anew.

Reopening on Cortlandt Street "seemed the fastest and most practical way to get back on our feet," Mr. Gindi said. The 20,000-square-foot main building, a former bank that housed the men's department, is still under reconstruction, being refurbished at a cost that Century 21 will not disclose.

Staying put entails risks. "From a purely cool business perspective, one might advise them to think in terms of a shrunken population and do a smaller store," said Candace Corlett, a partner at WSL Strategic Retail, a New York consulting firm. "It might be smart to put your biggest store, say, on 59th Street," she said, adding that she understood the company's reluctance to follow such advice: "For the family, this is an emotional decision, not just a business decision. It's their land, the site of their success. I'm sure there is a management determination to recreate that success."

The company has reason to be sanguine. Century 21 has long been a magnet not only to denizens of Wall Street but to visitors from the five boroughs and neighboring states. No random stopover on tourist itineraries, "Century 21 is a destination in and of itself," Mr. Weisbrod said. In recent years, Mr. Gindi said, it was common to see buses pull up and disgorge bargain-driven shoppers from Massachusetts and Maryland.

On weekends, when the rest of downtown was pretty much a desert, the store's Church Street entrance was lined with limousines discharging fur-swathed women with Park Avenue addresses. Thriftier types arrived on the E train, descending like locusts and flushed with the thrill of the chase.

The store also drew seasonal throngs from Kyoto, Caracas and Berlin. "The Germans always arrived in June," said Susan Sullivan, the general manager. "The South Americans started streaming in from December though March," she said, drawn by prices slashed, the owners say, 40 to 75 percent.

Century 21 is ready to welcome them back. For the grand opening, it will be stocked with entirely fresh inventory, including many new designer names. (Merchandise not damaged in the attack was sent to the Brooklyn store.)

"Our vendors have been especially good to us — they went above and beyond to help us out," said I. G. Gindi, Raymond Gindi's brother, who is in charge of merchandising. "We have about a thousand vendors in men's wear alone," he said, "and in ladies at least a couple of thousand, 40 percent of them European designers." Those numbers, he said, are significantly higher than they were before Sept. 11.

On a recent visit to the store, its European-designer floor was still shrouded in plastic, but on the racks one could spot filmy white Gucci skirts, pink and white Paul Smith gingham jackets, chunky tank tops from Celine looking as if they had been brushed with gold paint, and patterned wrap skirts from Pucci.

The sea of temptations extends to the cosmetics floor, home to pricey fragrances by Annick Goutal and Clarin's advanced anti-cellulite cream, and to the men's department, where entire walls were paved with pastel-tinted Ralph Lauren shirts. The other day, Ms. France, the editor of Lucky, a Condé Nast magazine devoted to shopping, said she was looking forward to scouring the store for style trophies. "I expect it to still be the kind of place you go to take risks, to pick up the craziest items in a collection, those unlikely to be carried by other stores," she said.

A jacket with a shredded hem or a dress dripping fringe might send her pulse racing. "You're excited, always, by the sense that you might find stuff that was only seen on the runways," she said, "that only a handful of people were going to be willing to buy." And whether you had saved $30 or $300, you left smug in the certainty "that you had performed a service for yourself."

Others yearn to repeat what had once been a warming communal ritual. Century 21 "was a place where everyone mixed — people who could buy at more expensive boutiques and those who could not," said Eileen Randig, the director of religious education at the Brooklyn Oratory of Saint Boniface, a church. "Bargain- hunters all, we came together with a common goal. The store was a great equalizer."

She pointed out that to the initiated, items bought at the store easily signaled their provenance. "People I know recognize the merchandise," she said. "They still stop each other, touch an article of clothing, and ask, `Century?' Usually the answer is yes."